April 3, 2012 By Matt Williams
During an evening telecast in 1969, newsman Walter Cronkite made a startling announcement: Chattanooga, Tenn., had the worst air pollution in America. It proved to be an alarming call to action for civic leaders, who have been working to distance their region from a bygone era of industrialism ever since.
In many ways, the city has succeeded. Chattanooga’s well-kept downtown and waterfront have been revitalized. The Tennessee Aquarium, billed the “largest freshwater aquarium in the world,” opened in 1992. The city’s minor-league baseball team christened a new stadium in 2000. And the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus continues to grow. Music festivals, art museums and rib joints have come to town — the trappings of a cosmopolitan community rather than a blue-collar dumping ground.
But Mayor Ron Littlefield remembers how things once were. Since moving to Chattanooga in the ’60s, he has been witness to the city’s gradual transformation. And now, Littlefield is watching over another metamorphosis — this one centered on amazingly fast broadband connectivity.
Chattanooga now calls itself The Gig City — in reference to the fiber-to-the-home network built across 600 square miles of Chattanooga and surrounding Hamilton County. Up to 1 gigabit per second service now is available to all businesses, residences, and public and private institutions. The network has the business community dreaming big, with aspirations of becoming a Silicon Valley of the South. Meanwhile, the city and county are banking on the high-speed connectivity to help improve public safety and educate the region’s workforce.
“Here is a community with a Southern quality of life, has a pretty good university, has a lot of amenities, and once was the dirtiest city in America,” Littlefield said. “And now [it has] this great technological tool that we can use to build a future.”
How did Chattanooga land on the leading edge? A little bit of good fortune, a lot of persistence and — excuse the cliché — public-private collaboration.
Is Chattanooga Really First?
It depends on the definition. The Gig Tank’s website proclaims that “Chattanooga is the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer 1 gigabit-per-second fiber Internet service to all of its residents and businesses.” Although this appears to be a true statement, it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, said Craig Settles, an analyst who covers the wireless and community broadband market. There were 1 Gbps community networks before Chattanooga’s, but none that have matched its 600-square-mile coverage area. Santa Monica, Calif., built a fiber network initially to replace its legacy voice and communications systems. The money that Santa Monica saved with the new technology was reinvested to expand the network beyond just government use. Connection speeds now exceed 1 gig, but the network covers about 25 square miles, Settles said. Another difference is that the network originated from Santa Monica’s IT department and not the public utility, as in Chattanooga’s case. And Wilson, N.C., followed a path similar to Santa Monica, he said.
What makes Chattanooga stand out, Settles says, is the coordinated and singular focus exhibited by everyone — the business community and government leaders — on the messaging about Chattanooga’s network. Economic development consulting firm Kinsey Probasco Hays, along with business incubator Lamp Post Group and accelerator The Company Lab, are three of the key drivers.
According to Settles, “Kinsey Probasco Hays is a driving force behind the local and national awareness campaign. The chamber [of commerce] provides much of the hands-on national joint marketing of the city and the network, while the EPB’s team markets the service locally. The chamber, EPB, River City Co. — which some call the ‘Department of Downtown’— and the Enterprise Council (a promoter of high-tech economic development) team up to recruit new companies to move or expand to Chattanooga.”
So although 1-gig networks have preceded Chattanooga, Settles said by marketing effectively, the city did what others haven’t.
How Fast Is 1 Gbps?
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